Each year, 2 February is celebrated as World Wetlands Day to commemorate the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in Ramsar, Iran in 1971. The theme this year is Disaster Risk Reduction, because wetlands can protect us from natural disasters. The Ramsar Convention, was a landmark achievement in formally acknowledging the huge impact that wetlands have on our lives. This piece was originally published in February 2016.
Broadly speaking, wetlands may be defined as land that is covered with water for part or whole of the year, making them “transitional between terrestrial and aquatic eco-systems”.
The term can be used to refer to marshes, mangroves, backwaters and lakes along with other water bodies.
Why We Should Care
Today, wetlands cover an approximate 4.7 percent of Indian territory – around 115 of them are protected under the National Wetland Conservation Plan.
Some of the most famous wetlands in India include popular areas like the Chilika lake in Odisha, the Ashtamudi lake in Kerala and the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.
In this article, we take a look at some of the reasons why India should care about the wetlands:
1. Flood absorbers:
Wetlands have an incredible capacity to absorb excess rainwater by acting as a giant sponge. Incidences of urban flooding (such as the devastating floods in December) may have been partially caused by the disappearance of urban wetlands.
2. Recharge groundwater:
Groundwater is one of the primary sources of water for us and wetlands allow rainwater to seep through and recharge the water table. Filling in our wetlands and the increased concretisation of our cities are among the reasons why there has been a drastic drop in groundwater levels.
3. Rich in biodiversity:
Wetlands are characterised by a rich species diversity and are often popular sites for migratory birds. Not only is this valuable for a healthy ecosystem, these sites are also popular with tourists. Well managed tourism can be a valuable source of employment and revenue and, at the same time, create incentives for maintaining and conserving the wetlands.
4. Source of human services:
In addition to controlling floods, wetlands tend to provide a host of direct services for people – these include drinking water, recreation, irrigation, pollution control and fisheries.
Wetlands Under Threat
Wetlands in India are under threat – today, these areas are being constantly encroached, overburdened with pollutants and filled in for construction.
The case of Bangalore’s “flaming and frothing lake” is one example of what could happen when ecosystems are abused and sadly, this is not an exception.
Around the country, over a third of wetlands are believed to have disappeared or been degraded already.
At a time when our wetlands are under threat from climate change (for example, sea water rise from climate change will have a massive impact on our coastal wetlands), we need to urgently wake up to the human induced stress on our wetlands.
Conservation plans must be implemented, constructing over wetlands must be banned and more wetland sites must be protected. Abusing wetlands may prove profitable in the short term but in the long term, it’s we who will suffer from their absence.
(Shalini Iyengar is a lawyer and Research Associate at the International University College of Turin.)